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Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) is the vocal half of comic magician duo Penn & Teller and author of Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.
As we’ve learned from former guests Michael Shermer and Sam Harris, being an outspoken skeptic about the way the world works — employing our complex human brains for critical thinking rather than accepting things at face value — can land us in hot water. People whose belief systems we threaten by asking too many questions don’t usually welcome the disruption.
Penn Jillette, the vocal half of comedy magician duo Penn & Teller, is outspoken enough for both of them — and then some. With “over ten thousand” live shows under his belt after decades of being a performer, he’s an expert at using illusion to manipulate an audience’s perception — and then showing that same audience exactly how it’s been deceived. When you go to a Penn & Teller show, you won’t believe your eyes — and as Penn would tell you, you shouldn’t.
Penn joins the show to tell us some great stories, share his unique perspectives, and talk about his book Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales. We hope you enjoy this episode — you won’t believe your ears!
Penn Jillette, the half of the comedy magician duo Penn & Teller who does all the talking, would never ask you to believe that what they do on stage is “magic.” Taking a cue from illusionist and fellow skeptic James Randi, he’s adamant in disavowing the influence of anything supernatural in what’s presented to an audience — no matter how incredible it may seem. And as only a confident master showman can do, he’ll clue the audience in on the specifics of the spectacle in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the wonder of it all.
But how does the duo keep the balance between revelation and mystery?
“It’s very simple,” Penn says. “The way magic is done is always ugly. As a matter of fact, the way you can tell if a trick is good is if the method is ugly. So whenever you’re giving away tricks, you don’t give away really deep methods — because they’re not interesting…the mind is looking for beauty, which is one of the reasons that particle physics took so long to be accepted…it’s ugly. We haven’t found the beauty yet.”
He points out how it’s similar to the way a detective story works. There’s usually a moment in the story where the audience is prompted to say “ah-hah!” with a sense of discovery — even though it’s really the storyteller who’s solved the caper and not the audience. Enough clues are given to keep the story moving and interesting without concerning the audience with the deeper, uglier mechanics usually involved in actual crimes.
Penn & Teller know only to reveal the beautiful pieces of the puzzle, and leave us guessing about the relatively ugly and boring intricacies of their famous bullet trick (as seen below) — of which Penn says there are “at least 30 steps” and we’d lose interest if he started to explain it all to us.
It all began as a way of differentiating themselves from other performers on the magic circuit in the ’80s. The expected dynamic between the magician and the audience at that time was very us vs. them. Penn & Teller wanted to change this by letting the audience know, up front, that they were on the same side — and revealing the beautiful parts of their performance was a way of establishing this trust. It allowed for a certain level of participation from the audience by letting it in on the joke, but to a degree that didn’t spoil the show by giving away too much.
“Once we give away two tricks that are beautiful, you automatically believe that all the methods we’re using are beautiful,” says Penn. “And of course, that’s not true. Our secret is ugly!”
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about what Penn really thinks of people who come to Penn & Teller shows in hopes of seeing someone get hurt when they do their famous bullet catch trick, what Gilbert Gottfried and James Brown have in common, why autopilot mode sometimes trumps presence when you’ve performed a bit more than ten thousand times over your career, what Penn means when he says “familiarity breeds tempo” (which ties in with why he loves the pace of Howard Hawks’ movies), how George Carlin’s comedic timing was almost musical in its precision, Penn & Teller’s real motivation for coming up with new material (and how they move beyond support and compromise during the collaborative creation process), why Penn chose magic over music as a career, how (and why) Penn lost 100 pounds, and lots more.
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